Armistice Day: Centenary - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 5th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 6:34 pm, 5th November 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Ashton for his introduction to this most important debate. I declare an interest as someone who has lectured in European history—and by that I mean the history of Europe, not the history of Britain as part of it. Many of us in this House are of an age where what happened in the First World War is much closer to our family history than it is for our children. My family was half from Britain and half from Ireland; they had very different experiences of the First World War. My father, who was living in Dublin at the time, has memories of the first military stirrings against the British. None of our Irish family volunteered to fight in the First World War. They stayed in Ireland, and I do not think the Irish people who went to war in 1914, when they were quite popular, were quite as popular when it got to 1918. As a youngish boy, my father remembers stones being thrown at British soldiers returning from the First World War.

My English family had a very different experience. My grandmother, who lived in Lincoln, was engaged to a young second lieutenant who was killed, and—as often happened in those days—she went on to marry his younger brother. He suffered from having been gassed, and from post-traumatic stress disorder. He never recovered from the First World War, and died in his 50s. The difference in those experiences did impinge on the whole family, because the contribution of the Irish to the First World War has also largely been forgotten. But there was a considerable contribution—from the south, from the Catholic areas—and it needs to be remembered because the First World War was a war we helped to win. Britain did not win the First World War. We have heard about the soldiers from the Commonwealth; the Americans of course joined in; and there was a lot of assistance from outside. We often forget that two Allied soldiers died for every German who died. The Germans had a pretty efficient fighting machine during the First World War—as indeed they did in the second.

I see the Armistice not as ending the First World War but as calling a ceasefire in what was effectively a 30-year war. In the second war, none of our family died—though one or two were injured. What caused it? It was caused by hatreds. Read the recent biography of Charles de Gaulle. Around 1908, during his stay in Germany, he wrote home to his parents, his mother in particular, saying how he hated the Germans, even though he was there learning the language. The build-up to the First World War was almost inevitable, and this is what worries me today.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that if you keep on emphasising differences between people, you stir up trouble and hatreds. We have to work together—we are a small continent—and whereas de Gaulle grew up wishing to avenge 1870, and with a generation intent on avenging 1870, right through to 1914, we are not going to progress as a peaceful continent if we keep on emphasising our differences. If you look at the other side of the Rhine, you see that the young Adenauer felt very much the same. Adenauer and de Galle came out of the First World War ready to formulate the peace of the 1950s. It is a great shame that our leaders at that time did not join in—and I have to say that Clement Attlee was as bad as Winston Churchill in terms of actually wanting to get involved in Europe.

Another point worth remembering is that Armistice Day is not remembered in the same way all over Europe. In fact, 11 November is Polish independence day: it is a holiday there. The Finns, the Estonians, the Latvians and the Lithuanians all saw their country born out of that war. Some of us who are in the relevant all-party group will have been going to embassies to celebrate 100 years of these different countries, and their birth. So there is quite a different attitude in some countries. The Czech Republic—Czechoslovakia as it then was—was born out of the first war, and modern Turkey would probably not have arisen had Kemal Atatürk been on the side of a victorious Ottoman empire; but he was not.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that we need a certain amount of humility and we need to learn how to build a lasting peace. We need to work out how we in Europe are going to live together. We have to start, somehow or other, talking to the Russians. It is no good the Daily Mail et cetera banging on about how horrible they are: yes, they are horrible, but we will not get anywhere unless we talk to them, and unless we sit them down and get some sense out of them.

The second thing we have to realise is that war is changing. You could not possibly have a repeat of the First World War today, with its slaughter: it would not be acceptable. I put it to noble Lords that you could not have a repeat of the Second World War, either. We are now in an age when war is conducted by drones, launched from my noble friend Lord Cormack’s home county of Lincolnshire and dropping bombs in Iraq. We have a system where, frankly, a cyberwar would probably be much more effective in ending a country’s independence than a military war.

So we have to look to the future, and I say in closing that the future must be based on international co-operation. We have to work together. I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and many others, on the to my mind disastrous decision to leave the European Union. The only way we can go forward is by sitting down and talking to each other, and making sure that at the top of our minds is our recent history and the fact that we must never let it be repeated—and the way to achieve that relies on a lot of understanding, talk and work between us. Yes, it is frustrating. I spent 39 years in Brussels and I am a past master at knowing how frustrating these talks can be, but in the end it is the only way forward.